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From hyper-nationalism to brazen racism, Micromax’s comeback has started off on the wrong foot

The box you see above is Micromax’s media invite, sent out for its momentous return to India’s smartphone market after a long absence. But the charm of these quirky props all withers away when you read the prominent slogan in transliterated Hindi, “aao karein cheeni kum.” The phrase is used here as a double entendre, as the Hindi word cheeni is used for both sugar and the demonym Chinese, to allusively mean ‘let’s cast out the Chinese.’ This is Micromax stooping to a new low just days after its founder tried to capitalize on border skirmishes in a video promoting the brand’s resurgence.

Before diving deeper, here’s a little backstory about India’s homegrown smartphone maker Micromax. Around the early to mid-2010s, an energetic and young Micromax managed to beat the world leader Samsung by making some smart choices with its big-screen Canvas series. The company dramatically climbed to the top of the Indian market, and even struck a deal with Google to be an Android One debut partner. Its only vice was that its entire lineup was made up of white-label phones imported from China. It was so notorious that it became standard practice to search through Alibaba to find the ODM model that Micromax relabeled for its new phone launch. But before the brand could remedy this fiasco with original designs and local assembly, the Chinese onslaught swept it out of the game.

Chinese brands undertood the changing needs of the average Indian consumer better than an Indian brand.

Micromax’s reign, though, was short lived. Chinese brands like Xiaomi and OnePlus understood the changing needs of the average Indian consumer better than an Indian brand. Those new entrants had the capability to adapt quickly and deliver the products at scale using their sprawling manufacturing facilities back home. And until recently, Micromax was contract manufacturing devices for other brands through its local factories — having gone full circle. Fast-forwarding to the present day, Chinese players dominate India’s top 5 list, apart from Samsung. The buyers have grown accustomed to these brands, their community approach, and the software experience in all these years. Micromax now had an uphill task of countering that consumer inclination, in addition to the swelled-up competition, and it needed something substantial to make a smashing comeback. Just then, an opportunity presented itself.

India’s border conflict with China grew to the point that the government decided to (unofficially) retaliate with app bans, fueling a strong anti-China sentiment. While this was a crisis of sorts, Micromax took it as a marketing opportunity to reach millions of Indians outraged by the border tensions just so it could sell a few phones. Its Twitter account came to life right around that time, teasing its return, while the company maintains that it’s been working on its new lineup since well before the current standoff. Even the new ‘in’ sub-brand taps into the prevailing nationalistic narrative, while Micromax co-founder Rahul Sharma also touched upon these border clashes in a recent promo video (below). Only Micromax and seems to know what any of these cross-country tensions could possibly have anything to do with a phone launch.

While you can perhaps gloss over the hyper-nationalism bit, this new racist media invite pushes things too far, and is totally uncalled for. It deserves all the condemnation and must be called out for its racist undertone. Micromax is relying on bashing China and Chinese products to position its own phones as the only truly Indian option — when almost all their components are likely coming from China and just being put together here.

Being razor-focused on cashing in on the popular narrative, Micromax failed to foresee what lay ahead. Even though the anti-China sentiment had a strong impact and managed to send shockwaves across the industry, it was short-lived. Most buyers are back to giving more weight to the value they’re deriving versus what country the product comes from. It’s abundantly evident from recent mega sales on Flipkart and Amazon, where Xiaomi alone sold over 5 million phones in a matter of days. What’s laudable about the local tech community is that it largely stuck to objectivity in product reviews and didn’t allow xenophobia to sway its recommendations.

Micromax should consider sticking to a staunch moral compass that will help it position itself as a strong competitor to the existing market leaders, not as a brand that is here to eat someone else’s lunch.

The Indian smartphone market is pretty straightforward: You pack the phone with as many features as the segment allows, give it a competitive price, and that’s it. A nationalistic and racist outlook may earn Micromax some quick attention, but it cannot use such things to keep its customer base in the longer run. If anything, this episode could haunt Micromax for a very long time if it doesn’t change course.

And while the first impression of the company’s comeback is certainly distasteful, that shouldn’t affect how we see its upcoming device lineup. In fact, I’m eager to check them out and see for myself if Micromax can still bring the Canvas magic back. In the meantime, Micromax should consider sticking to a staunch moral compass that will help it position itself as a strong competitor to the existing market leaders and not as a brand that is here to eat someone else’s lunch.

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